Ici Commence

Ecrits de Natacha Michel

How can one be Chinese ?

Gli anni settenta, Colloque, Bologne, 09/2007


As a writer “How can one be Chinese ?” has been the thread – or rather, the plot- for two of my novels. Out of ten : La chine européenne (73) et Circulaire à toute ma vie humaine (2005). And the subject of a short essay : Ô jeunesse, ô vieillesse (2002). How can one be Chinese ? asked trotskysts, or members of the French communist party, and, often with powerful points, the security police, tirelessly demanding : “Are you linked with a foreign and far away power ?”, while we were in custody. It is not that red China had annexed us (or paid us as mercenaries). We annexed Red china. Which red China ? The one of the Cultural Revolution of course.

And it was not folklore, as in the beautiful movie by Jean-Luc Godard La chinoise, while we wore bleu jacket and blue cap. It was because the world in which we had grown, to which we opened our eyes had rose on new foundation (as the song says). Of course, the imaginative Chinese formula attracted us very much. Those political sayings did not use what is called here the stiff wooden language. They used the style of tales or the style of rhymes : “the sixteen points”, “the triple alliance” “, or the former ”big salt further“ or “let hundred flowers blossom”. The fiercest ideological struggle took the theater as an arena just like in the French Seventeenth century. (China is not far away, said the title of an Italian movie by Bellochio (1967)). And the political directives pretending to be proverbs were a delight for me. Besides, we took these sayings quite seriously. One in particular, in “The declaration with 16 points” : “The masses cannot free themselves but by themselves. No one can replace them in this task.” Quite pointless to speak about da dze ba o : they went all around the world and were as famous as Marilyn Monroe. Pop art has been an unintentional son of maoïst iconography by its gilded realism. And as we know, today the Chinese neo-pop art market is bullish.

For a young activist around 66 to be a communist had two meanings :

1.To be a follower of the French communist party (which pretended to be the stock holder of the working class, which had lost honor and meaning by the way they did not fight against the colonial war in Algeria). Among other misdeeds they had chosen the path of elections, and were the faithful followers of USSR, destalinized and krouchevinized. Therefore, to be the followers of the French communist Party meant to endorse these misdeeds and to follow USSR, destalinized and krouchevized.

2.Or- second significance : to rebuilt the idea of communism. And at that point what was going on in China had the greatest interest for us. Because what was going on concerned communism now, in our time, and not in the past. We were not seeking a return to origins. What was going on asked the modern and contemporary questions. The Cultural Revolution had sprung up just at the right moment to feed and inspire our main concerns. Socialism was going through an enormous crisis : the USSR was no more revolutionary but revisionist. It meant for us that the question of communism had been withdrawn and that socialism as transition settled down for ever instead of vanishing. Or strived toward vanishing. For us, one of the main questions was the decline, the decay of State. Well then, state in socialism had grown in immense power and the proletarian dictatorship was more like party dictatorship. The historical socialism in USSR had done no more than edifying a Party state, where state and party were totally mingled. Cultural revolution instead, seemed a revolution within revolution : it taught us that taking the power was not a point of no return and that the real problems relied upon building of socialism. Did the state decline, which was the mark of existence of classes ? Or did it increase ? Did the big contradictions between countryside and city, between workers and peasants, between nationalities, diminish or grow bigger ? Did the so called tree big differences decrease or increase ? In China, it seemed that at least the people, the rebels, were on stage and dealt with those points. Instead of obeying the orders of the party, the saying : Who has not done inquiry has not right to speak, was substituted. These were the first lessons we learned. It did not matter that Cultural Revolution happened and was going on in a country nothing like ours. We were no sociologists, no anthropologists, and no Chinese scholars. No use to tell us that we were not in socialism here in France. Despite little likelihood of a revolution happening home, better to start with good methods. We were a youth and militants searching how to “voyage out”, how to pass trough appearances, if I paraphrase a master-piece written by Virginia Woolf. Then, who were we ? Well then, Maoïsts !

Once more, through the seventies, specificity was no obstacle. Because universality existed in two ways : Marxism was one and the belief that there was a worldwide situation. A new experiment was valid for all, which created rupture throughout the world. This aforesaid universalism was indeed Marxism, which permitted to think that a small rebellion in the remotest village of the remotest country could make sense for all. Also universalism was sustained by a conception of history you all know. In that sense, the uprising of French youth (and others), around 68, was relevant. Although 68 began earlier and ended later, in 80. It was the historical break that made of us the contemporaries of the events taking place in China. Not China. How can one be Chinese ? By being Maoist ! During the seventies and long time after May 68, some significant part of the French youth, a smaller part of older intellectuals, and some significant workers were Maoïsts.

What had been borrowed from China of the Cultural Revolution ? Let say first that it had been a persistent reference for militant action. Not only because of the “revolution into revolution”. Because of what was called the link to the masses. In The little red book, when we discovered it, we used to read bravely the chapter about the link to the masses. It was mocked, drag in the mud, but it was no Mantra for us. We did not sing The little red book, we dealt with it as a new method of thinking and of organization : from the people and to the people. And not from the people to the party. And it was on a large scale. For this reason “How can one be Chinese” is part of French political history.

The link to the masses meant not to think that politics is alive elsewhere than factories, workers neighborhoods, with peasants. Among the people, “to serve the people” - which was the name of a militant paper. And practicing great exchanges of experiment. This was the new politic. And also, following this way, was the real medium for fighting the degenerating communist party, called revisonnist.

Anyone could observe huge resettlements of young students, mostly brilliants ones and without a doubt a splendid future, deserting their natural habitat – dull social lives, sad parties, half moon shaped on cine clubs, college dormitories barracks like, long and sinister Sundays or days off – for chosen places : the streets, physical struggle, factories, and an ascetic and difficult life. Were they many ? Perhaps it is the reason why a character of my novel European china says : “Maybe we are few. But no matter : we are tree thousand plus six hundred millions of Chinese.” But the opponents to this conception of doing politics were many : first among them, the communist party who utterly knew that those who attacked them were no “merry students” but real et determined enemies. The reason why the French communist party tried to discredit them by calling them “merry students”. There were also those whose tactic was to ignore absolutely the Cultural Revolution and who pretended that what was going on in China was just an insignificant struggle for power, a plot within the Celestial bureaucracy. This way of seeing things had great promise, once added to it the millions dead. All right. It certainly happened like that also. Except for that : it is impossible to consider the new inventions, wherever it arises, with the theme “nothing ever new under the sun”. In an other scenery of European China, there is a variant of that theme “nothing new under the sun” and I cannot resist translating it for you : It takes place around the year 67.

A character, Ann, a student of Chinese, asks her sinologist teacher about present China “Why ?” the teacher growls – Just because I am interested - Interested ? Are you mad, you crazy fool. Young lady, said the teacher and he eyed her from head to toes, Formosa is a beautiful country, in some parts of China you can see landscape that would remind you of the most splendid paintings…” Ann muttered : “But Mao, the cultural revolution…” The teacher choked with rage : “Are you by any chance referring to Mao, the Cultural Revolution “tageming, Peita dasué” ? All that ? It does not exist. I have never seen such a thing in China, invention, special forgery made in France - But Mao, said humbly the student, he does exist !” The anger of the teacher went wild. “But Mao is a joke, his life does not reach the ankle of Confucius, his existence is not worth the belt of Lao tseu, his poems don’t come up to the little finger of any Chinese emperor ! And you are telling me that those halves, those quarters make an accomplished man ? Just a throughout liar, you, young scatter brain ! Let me tell you something. China does not exist.”

Thousands of French people believed the contrary ! All that because these many had the strong and fierce conviction that the time of revolutions had not ended. They (we) were imminentists if I may risk this neologism. A revolution was about. We thought within the categories of party, looking forward for a new type, we thought within Marxist notions of History and class struggle. Also within the concept of proletarian dictatorship. And we did not agree with an interesting and intellectually powerful theory, mainly developed by Althusser and his followers, that the validity and interest of Marxism was that it was a science. So, within the Marxists, we were “the Chinese”.

Could we think a second that, with the cold war going on, and with the cold war between USSR and China, we were supporting a side. And that we backed up China against USSR ? First of all, we were not agents, we read Peking information but our relationships with embassies or anything like that, were void. Second point : How could one thing that revolution was in the air in France in those years ? Let’s listen to a dialogue between a Maoist (Esthivin) and a revisionist (Xavier) about this question in European China. The first character says :

- “We agree, don’t we, about the tempest zone ? (that revolution was only relevant for people on the peripheries), asked Xavier.
- The peaceful coexistence (It was an agreement between United states and USSR) changes it all, answered Esthivain. The peaceful coexistence has to be endorsed by some populations, let’s say, those of central countries.
- But the French working class benefits from imperialism pillage, does he not ? said Xavier. Do you ever think about how much food there is in the plate of a, let’s say, Peruvian peasant ?
- You are right, but lessen. The peaceful coexistence will give birth to a paradox. Well, the political parties have to support either of the two imperialisms. In France, the communist party supports the Russian one.
- This does not tell me how the French proletariat will become revolutionary. Lately he swallowed rather smoothly the colonial war, didn’t he ? Quite recently, to my view, said Xavier.
- The peaceful coexistence, the pacific way to socialism are new forms of oppression. It is against this oppression that the French working class will rebel. Against what we call revisionism
- With his trade unionist and electoral tradition conquered by fights a century long ? Let me laugh.”

In the Cultural Revolution we saw many things beyond those I have mention. Suddenly, there was a situation, an event, that history and laws of history, so to say, have not predicted. The class struggle under socialism did not belong to History. It belonged to politics. Particularly when it took the aspect, the shape of an insurrection of ideas and people. Even if the Cultural Revolution was History, politics were not the realization of history, its concretization, but the other way round. It was merely politics which made history. One had to think of History starting from politics. And one could begin to thing that, despite all the Marxist vulgate, there was a gap between history and politics. Better said, politics had its own way : we can call it : The way of the masses, so different from the soviet-union patterns. The masses seemed a new concept which withdrew the hegemony of analysis in terms of classes. Taking the power did not solve every thing. That is to say that the conclusions drawn from Cultural revolution, as we viewed it, were critical toward the academic Marxism and of course toward the Marxism steaming from the Soviet Union. These critical views were about classes, taking the power, revolution, History. The critic of those notions leaned against the refusal of the coalescing, the merging, of party and state which discredited both. But it signified a rereading of Lenine and many other invention of notions. This would be done by Sylvain Lazarus.

To go back to my presentation, I must say that being Chinese, was the end of something and the beginning of some other things in politics. The Maoists of the European china were anti capitalists, anti revisionist, without concern for elections, for parlementarism, and old politicians. Ok. But and perhaps among others, they were the one to dig the lucky find they interpreted as inventions of the Cultural revolution. But in a certain way, they were the last Marxists revolutionary, in this part of the world. And the first to sense that the crisis of Marxism was more than the rough “debate” between China and Russia, but the crisis of marxism itself. This took place after 68.

Since 66, the Marxists-Leninists (as the Maoists called themselves) really went to factories, former students went to factories. And many of them were determined not to go back. In France too, yet before and during 68, harsh debates took place, not in universities, during 68 they were deserted, but elsewhere about knowledge. The Maoists dealt with the distinction between manual labour and intellectual work. With some excess sometimes and a slogan : they refused to be the footmen of the boss. This happened before May 68 and with more strength during 68. And it went on after May. They did not favor much the huge demonstrations through the city, more alike a military parade – while a war was going on (between everybody and the riot police). They preferred as I have said the factories, and the masses. And suddenly it was the 16 of may 68. Factories went on strike, some in which the agitators were Maoists. On the 18 of may 2 millions on strike. The 24 of may 10 millions. Then begun the fight against the communist party and his syndicates. Inside the factories, at the gates of the factories. As a huge movement, this lasted until the elections and the agreements of the syndicate at Grenelle. What happens after is History, it is not politics. The formal order was back.

But for what had been called the Maoists, nothing ended with May 68. The end of a period (and the defeat) is not what gives sense to the period. The sense stands in the period itself. But also the sense of an event is in its posterity. This posterity was divide in two. First : an enormous amount of people within the militants, and the Maoists, joined Mitterrand when he was elected in the years 80. An enormous amount of people and the former Maoïsts dreamt only around the years eightees of how beautiful capitalism, in the lovely valleys of American California, was. A new philosophy arose, called new philosophy, invented by former Maoïsts, which spread the ideas that any attempt of emancipation, whatever happened, ended always by creating terrors and concentration camps. Emancipation was loathed and became the supplement to the twelve capital sins of the bible. The regn of the victims begun. To want the better was giving birth to the worst. The only critics about socialism were critics of totalitarism, method which would have been called some years before the rightist manner of discussing the problem. And everyone begun to praise what would be the new lumber room, the new holdall : democraty. With that word, you can throw everything in the bag : freedom and the American bombs over totalitarian Belgrade, War in Irak or elsewhere. The right to move as you please, to say what you want, and the dictatorship of democracy. I have, I hope, made fun of those repentants of Maoism, of those reformed prostitutes in my Circulaire à toute ma vie humaine. The second half of the posterity went on. The question for this bunch of people, in witch I count myself, was : how to change without changing side. Maoism was dead. Cultural revolution did not succeed in emancipating politics from the party/state. Politics by the people and concerning everyone had to be invented anew, without party. It was, to speak with words I persist to like, the leftist manner to voyage out again. From this saturation of Marxism one thing subsisted : the link to the masses. How to be Chinese was no more to be Maoist. It was merely to be Chinese. We have a great debt towards those.

Natacha Michel